Death Stranding is beautiful, confusing, and strange in all the right ways

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Kojimas Productions made the weirdest game I’ve played this year and, for all of my complaints with Death Stranding, I can’t help but like it.

Death Stranding was never going to live up to the mythologized version we created. You can count me as someone who finds review scores arbitrary and would rather focus on the text, and I find it especially difficult to assign a score to Kojima’s latest project. It’s already going down as one of the most divisive games out there. Time may change that, but whether for better or worse, is yet to be determined.

I’m not someone who thinks video games need to be fun to be good, but I also don’t think they should be grueling and tedious. That’s the best way to describe Death Stranding’s early gameplay. The opening hours are such a slog that I wanted to quit several times, but every time I was about to put the controller down, I was fed a morsel of something amazing. Death Stranding dishes out these moments sparingly, always knowing exactly when to do so.

At this point, I’m sure you’ve read countless other reviewers refer to it as a walking simulator and call Sam a UPS delivery man. I won’t bore you by being redundant — though those comparisons are painfully accurate and perfectly capture what it is you’re doing in Death Stranding.

At a glance

Death Stranding

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Bottom line: A captivating world and cast of characters are let down by tedious gameplay, but something about it just works and keeps your attention for the journey. If you like micromanagement, this is the game for you.

The Good

  • Visuals are gorgeous
  • Succeeds at creating tension when necessary
  • Social aspects with other players
  • Intriguing world and characters
  • Great character performances

The Bad

  • Gameplay is monotonous and tedious
  • Too long for its own good
  • Opening hours start off slow
  • Doesn’t fully capitalize on the premise its universe presented
  • Makes my PS4 Pro fan sound like a jet engine frequently

$60 at Amazon

Death Stranding Gameplay

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I’m huddled under a rockface giving me a modicum of cover from the Timefall rain. I’ve been crouched there for what felt like an eternity, but was, in actuality, maybe 5 or 7 minutes. To put it into perspective, I had time to make myself a bowl of cereal and answer some emails on my phone. The rain hasn’t stopped. I figured it would let up sooner rather than later because Death Stranding encourages you to take cover lest the rain damage your cargo. In the end, I begrudgingly left my pitiful shelter to carry on, not willing to wait any longer. I ended up ruining a good portion of my cargo containers.

Maybe this is the type of reaction the game hoped to create. Reconnecting the world is a whole lot harder than tearing it apart. Sacrifices need to be made, and it’s a lonely job. But it’s seldom thankless. No matter where I went, the people expressed their gratitude, whether in the form of a simple thank you or something more tangible, like gear upgrades.

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The world feels tremendously intimidating on foot, but definitely less so on a motorcycle. I found that my motorcycle became a crutch, and I felt lost whenever I needed to abandon it to treck past BTs so the noise wouldn’t alert them. Out of everything in the game, I think this is the most useful tool, second only to actual bridges and zip lines that players build to help you cross difficult terrain.

Violence is discouraged for a very good reason.

When it comes to combat, violence is discouraged for a very good reason: dead bodies necrotize and cause a void out, which you can think of as a nuclear bomb going off. Because of this, you’ll find yourself either stealthily sneaking through enemy territory or avoiding conflict altogether. If that’s not enough, you have other tools at your disposal to incapacitate enemies.

BTs, those otherworldly creatures brought about by the Death Stranding phenomenon in the game, are a different story. Sam’s blood and bodily fluids harm them, so whenever you use your private quarters, you’ll receive grenades that do some damage.

Reconnecting the world is a whole lot harder than tearing it apart.

MULEs, rogue porters addicted to cargo, are decidedly less threatening most of the time. I could be surrounded by a group of them and easily take a minute or two to knock all of them out. They don’t pose much of a threat, making them just an annoyance. And when you do encounter tougher MULEs who use lethal weapons, they’re still annoying and not fun to fight.

Some sections act like your typical action moments with third-person shooting, and they’re not good. One that takes place later in the game throws you onto a war-torn battlefield where you’re running around the trenches trying to shoot anyone you see. The gunplay is awkward at best.

What is easily my favorite aspect of the game are its social aspects. If you happen to lose cargo, other players can find it in their world and deliver it for you. Players can set up timefall shelters, ziplines, bridges, ladders, safe houses, warning signs — you name it. I used these countless times throughout Death Stranding, and each time I used one, I couldn’t help but think how grateful I was that it was possible. Despite being a single-player game, you never really feel alone, in a sense. It’s almost like a shared-world experience.

Death Stranding Story and characters

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The world of Death Stranding is incredibly interesting, and when you take the time to listen to some of the exposition, the premise is easy to follow. When it comes to specifics about understanding the world, that’s when it gets harder to parse. It’s never so confusing that you feel completely lost. If someone asked me to explain what it’s about, I think I could do so fairly well in simple terms. And if you want a deeper understanding of its lore, Death Stranding offers a lot of information through written interviews.

As interesting as some of the characters were, I didn’t really connect with them on an emotional level. Several of them have tragic backstories, particularly Mama and Fragile, that players can sympathize with, they just didn’t really do it for me. But some of the unexpected twists involving a few characters hit their mark and make you question everything you thought you knew.

Death Stranding Visuals and performance

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Walking through Death Stranding felt like taking a trip through an untouched, scenic landscape from a painting. The world is practically empty, and that strengthens its atmosphere. You’ll travel through beautiful mountains and valleys, snow-covered hills, rocky, desolate terrain, and the ruins of former cities. Maybe it’s the color palette and how empty the world is, but I’ve seen games with more diverse environments despite everything I just listed. Regardless, the world is enthralling.

In terms of performance, overall, the game ran well aside from some slowdowns in its menus. It did make my PS4 Pro fan sound like an airplane taking off, but it didn’t affect the gameplay in any way.

Interpret Death Stranding how you want

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You can say only “intellectuals” will get Death Stranding all you want. That doesn’t make it true. It does have a broader message and succeeds on some level at conveying it thoughtfully. Kojima wants to bring the world together; connect everyone when it’s more divided than ever. Other times, it’s just a game where you fashion ammunition out of your own blood and human waste. I’m not about to debate whatever deep metaphors you believe Kojima had in mind. It boils down to a heavy-handed way of saying “build bridges, not walls.”

It boils down to a heavy-handed way of saying “build bridges, not walls.”

There are times when talking about the game feels like arguing with a high school English teacher who insists that there’s symbolism in everything in a book, even if the author didn’t intend it. Twitter is guilty of this as well, with a popular thread about the animated movie Ratatouille insisting that Remy cooked for the food critics’ mother years prior, and that’s why Remy’s food reminded Ego of his mother’s. As it turns out, this was a case of Pixar reusing assets for the film. No hidden meaning or anything so clever. Now imagine what’ll happen when people start replacing Ratatouille with Death Stranding in similar scenarios.

At the end of the day, you take away from Death Stranding what you do. If you find specific symbolism in it, more power to you. Death of the author exists for a reason, contentious as it may be. It’s your prerogative if you want to play through dozens of hours of gameplay tripping over rocks and carefully balancing cargo because the game speaks to you on some level.

Bottom line

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Is Death Stranding boring? Yes. Is it exhilarating? Yes. Is it confusing and interesting and bizarre and thoughtful? Also yes. It’s not something to be put in a box and defined as one thing. A lot of people won’t make it past the opening hours. Some won’t be able to get enough of it. This is true for most games, but especially this one. I’m not sure if I can tell you I had fun with it myself. What I can say is that the character performances are top-notch, the visuals are stunning, and the world of Death Stranding is fascinating.

3.5
out of 5


For all of its faults — and there are numerous — I’m glad that Death Stranding exists. I want developers to be able to pitch and create games like this. I want publishers to fund them. Maybe some ideas stick, maybe they don’t. But the industry will never grow as a medium if we keep recycling old ideas. Make weird games.

Reconnect

Death Stranding

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$60 at Amazon

Build bridges at your own peril

A captivating world and cast of characters are let down by tedious gameplay, but something about it just works and keeps your attention for the journey. If you like micromanagement, this is the game for you.